Ever since I moved up here for University eight years ago I’ve been going to the Beltane and Samhein festivals on Carlton Hill and the Royal Mile. Hosted by the Beltane Fire Society on top of Carlton Hill, Beltane is a modern reinterpretation of an ancient festival and an attempt to re-establish continuity with Scotland’s past.
(Picture from our first one, before we knew what to expect and thought it was clever to bring a picnic. So young, so impractical. There’s home made hot and sour soup in the flask. With tofu.)
Found across Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, Beltane’s origins lay far back enough into the pre-Christian period that we don’t know how it began or what the earliest celebrations looked like. However, we can safely say that the celebrations have always been about the change of the seasons and likely featured fire, fertility and, in a lot of places, cattle – who would be driven between bonfires to purify them and guarantee their protection in the coming year.
Beltane survived almost into the present day in Scotland, finally dying out in the 1800’s. After the coming of Christianity it was given a Christian veneer, and, if not exactly absorbed into the new faith, made compatible with it. This was because Beltane, like many other folk beliefs and festivals throughout history, filled a community need not specific to any one faith and so was quietly adapted to fit the new one. As well as providing an opportunity for communal celebration and for people in isolated areas to come together, create, and maintain social bonds, it also acted as a social pressure valve, allowing people to release the pent up stresses of Winter while at the same time providing structure to the year. Industrialisation and its corresponding changes to the structure of society are what ultimately put an end Beltane as it was, as it simply ceased to be relevant to the way most people lived their lives.
Enter the Beltane Fire Society, who in 1988 decided to revive Beltane and, backed by the school of Celtic Scottish Studies (hi old department!) started the annual festival (along with all their other performances and workshops) that’s still running now. Its not an attempt at a faithful recreation of Old Beltane but to do that would be against the spirit of the thing anyway, Beltane’s strength and longevity coming from the way it evolved over time to meet its celebrants needs – something this incarnation did by helping to reclaim Carlton Hill as a safe place for the community while moving to a more accessible location from the traditional Arthur’s Seat.
The current festival is a mixture of reconstructed Celtic myth and symbolism, neo-paganism and complex dance based storytelling. While it changes at least a little every year some parts remain the same; starting on the Acropolis, the May Queen, the Reds and the Green Man.
This year had light up mushroom and a girl painted green dancing around them. I liked them a lot.
With flash and without.
I didn’t manage to get many more pictures from the rest of the night but here are some of the May Queen and the procession.